Category Archives: Internet

Nonsense SEO Tactics

Time for nonsense.

turnip bezos tyrannosaurus lipid gothic sauce cingulate calliope gobsmacked

Jeff Bezos is a turnip.

I mean, have you ever looked at his head? Shiny. White. Bulbous.

Automated software is so much more fun when you actually find stuff that you didn’t expect to find, don’t you think? Myself, I’m constantly amazed at the cingulate nature of the Internet.

I mean, if Google wasn’t there, well, some of us would just carry on like we did before they showed up and wouldn’t skip a beat. The Earth would keep on turning.

The fracture of the Internet won’t come from incompatible protocols, but from a generational divide, where most of the current crop of shiny-faced graduates don’t understand the latent power of owning your own server environment.

Now I’m not one to lecture, for I use my share of the new ‘cloud’. But when those clouds turn to rain, I will preach from the rafters that any bits flowing is better than no bits flowing, and don’t you really think Jeff Bezos’ ultimate goal is to get a slice of a millicent out of every transaction?

Visa and MasterCard do quite well where there is physical infrastructure to process their payments. Amazon, however, is wherever there is signal. And wherever there is signal, there is commerce, and the signal is growing stronger every day.

When was the last time you were more than fifteen seconds away from connecting with the Internet?

Myself, I’d say I’m about five seconds away most of the time. Someday, it will just be there. All the time. On. You’ll have to think about how to turn it off because it’s so bloody useful to have on all the time.

Step back with me fifteen years, to 1997. Pop quiz: how did most people connect to the Internet in 1997?

Extra credit: If you were using the Internet in 1997, compare and contrast that experience with how you connect today. If you weren’t using the Internet in 1997, describe how you think people found information on it before Google had become mainstream.
So back to turnips.

Amazon is so doing a phone if only to do digital wallets. Who knows, their “phone” might actually just be a wallet. That you can use to buy anything, anywhere there is signal so Jeff Bezos can capture a millicent.

Facebook likely wants you to use their phone for the same reason, but don’t discount that it’ll have a screen on it that they can send ads to.

I can imagine Bezos and Zuckerberg, deep within their gothic lairs, flicking saurian tongues to taste the wind.

Speaking of which, been on Facebook lately? Have you heard about their stock? Talk about confusing. An immense clusterfuck of eminence fuckupatude. One’s left to wonder if the whole Knight Capital thing was a distraction from the investment bankers rapine tragedy of the commons that used to be the IPO.

How’s that Google search on Internet access 1997 coming along? Good! Keep at it, it’s in there somewhere.

Oh, wait! Did I mention shiny? I did, didn’t I?

It’s okay, I checked too, just to be sure.

As I was saying. Bulbous. Which is an adjective you could apply to some technology CEOs. But you’d never find that in Google.

Go ahead, try the search, “adjectives to describe google ceos” and see what you get. For comparison’s sake, try Bing too. Say what you will about Bing, they always have the most fantastic picture of the day.

But do compare the search results.

How’d that go?

Hard, innit?

How exactly do you compare the two turds in sauce result sets from search indices for questions that are a bit, um, fuzzy?

Have you ever had the experience of wondering, “I wonder where X comes from?” or, “How do I get to Y?” or, “Where can I find more Z?” where X is some foreign material, Y is exactly where the Donner Party stopped and Z is whatever is your guilty infotainment pleasure?

It’s a pretty powerful feeling to be able to tap into the hive knowledge. it’s like you’re shooting lightning bolts out your fingertips. But not in the Star Wars, crazy Emperor Palpatine way, but in the Tesla sort of way.

But the search engines will never be able to answer some questions until they can feel the wind at the beach on their tactile sensors and hear the calliope whispering of the waves through their microphone arrays and be able to understand how the lipid jellyfish husk moves with the ocean and slips through those tactile sensors.

I’ve had some of the most intense emotional experiences in my life through this communications medium. Joy. Sadness. Humor. Tyrannosaurus angry.

And it let’s you do fun stuff like this, sending you off somewhere else like for a moment and then hopefully you come back here now with my personal Google query. Eventually.

It’s a parlor trick that’s sure to leave you gobsmacked.

It’s about being human, and not letting the technology dehumanize you. It’s supposed to be fun. It’s not all about work because I’ll never work in this town again anyw…oh!


Best Wishes, Digital Fortress!

In case you missed the news Friday, a new company was announced, Digital Fortress. Derek Pilling and GeekWire have some good coverage of this new firm. My best wishes for the future go out to everyone involved, and if you’re in the market for colocation space, give them a call.

I’d also like to give a hearty thanks to every digital.forest customer, employee, partner, and investor, past and present, that was a part of the seventeen and a half year journey. It was an incredible ride, and I will be forever grateful for your trust, toils, risk-taking, and support.

Top Task Optimization – Example: The Header

Over twenty years have passed since the web was created, we’re still mostly creating the first web page and site. This irritates me.

Back in the days of web yore when websites started to gain serious traction and Yet Another Hierarchical Officious Oracle came online, the websites I encountered mirrored the Internet applications of the time. Applications like GopherPinevi, and ftp.

Endless hierarchical navigational menus with content neatly and zealously segregated into the buckets behind them, deep-tree page patterns that look like man pages, a dizzying array of click targets, sitemaps for computers instead of humans, and crappy default font choices in sizes and styles that make click targets miniscule.

Even people who should know better often stumble (myself included!)

Two decades of usability and customer feedback, and many websites still do this stupid shit. The mobile web revolution is starting to change things a bit given the screen size constraints, but many mobile sites have a UI not far removed from a DOS prompt.

Why has it been so hard to move on? It’s not like people haven’t tried. Shockwave  Flash, as much as it has its other issues, does at least provide the possibility of more information-dense experiences outside of the HTML box when designed correctly. HTML5 is showing some promise but it’s still to early to say how it will turn out.

I think the problem begins at home. The home page, to be specific.

The reason this is the case is because most websites still get designed starting from the home page and view the home page as the “root” of the site. For small sites this still makes some sense, but for sites containing more than a handful of pages, it’s just plain dumb. The home page and headers and footers are now overloaded, bloated things, crying out for streamlining and optimization.

Search has pretty much erased site hierarchies, and if you don’t have your top site tasks linked or actionable on each and every page, you are doing your visitors a huge disservice.

Over the coming weeks, I’ll analyze some sites to show how I think they could be made a bit better in this area.

Let’s start with a department store, Nordstrom. They have locations across the country and they have a very good online shopping experience that also offers in-store pickup. If I buy something and want to pick it up[1], what two pieces of information do I need? Where the store is and what time it is open.

This site has two entry points to find this information: one in the header labeled “Our Stores & Events” and one in the footer labeled “Store Locations & Events“. I’d argue that the second link title is a bit better than the first, but they may be doing some A/B testing here to find the better phrase for their customers. Note that they also have the link instrumented to track which one gets clicked.

On the destination page behind the link, I see this:

A key task hidden in the middle of a complex graphic.

It’s nice that the text entry focus is set and highlighted in the field, but wow, with that big header text on a busy background, I actually clicked on the header thinking I needed to go to another page before I spotted the text entry.

After entering in my zip code, the first listing on the results page is the furthest from my location. So I have to scroll down to find the closest one. This is a solved problem, so it’s surprising to run into it here. The good news is that they do clearly provide shopping hours and a link to a map, but the map is three clicks in from the home page. This is a significant hurdle for people on mobile devices.

In this example, I’m going to tackle the multiple click problem via the header and solve for a few other usability issues that crop up there along the way.

Current header.

The current header has a lot going on. Nine links plus a search box. There are four links that point to two destinations and there’s a mix of underlined and non-underlined links.

The first thing that jumps out for me is that the prime real estate, the top left corner, is underutilized from a top task perspective. Multiple eye tracking studies  have shown that most people start in the top left corner, move right, then down and to the right a shorter distance, making an “F” shape.

In this Step 1 revision, I’ve moved the Nordstrom logo up and placed the search box right below it. I’d A/B test this location against the current location to check performance, but with a more visible location I’d expect on-site search to increase.

Step 1 header revision.

On the right side, I’ve de-duplicated the “sign in” and “Your Account” links. In this signed out state, they both lead to the same sign in experience. In a personalized signed in state, clicking on your name would take you to your account information. Removing that link has the added benefit of tightening up the top line and it no longer competes for attention in the logo area.[2]

The biggest change here is the addition of base store hours for most of the week[3], and a store locator by zip code search box that uses some ghost text as a guide. The user interaction here would be to type in a zip code, hit enter/return, and have a results page that displays all regional stores plotted on a map along with a list sorted by proximity to the center of the zip code. Each store listed would also display hours and upcoming events.

In this new interaction model, every page on the site now provides critical top task  information, a rough guide to when stores are open, and locations are now only one click away from being displayed on a map. In the current model that Nordstrom is using, you are three clicks away from a map, two from store hours.

We’ve now (hopefully) optimized two top customer tasks, so now it’s time to take the second step and optimize for the top business tasks of promotions in the header. Nordstrom is using three areas here: 1) top left, under the logo, 2) top right, in the black header bar, and 3) lower right with icon.

In this second step, the most noticeable change is moving the shipping information and icon up into the top black bar. This removes the circular black icon, which was a visual attractor and previously drew you to the search box. With the search box moved, there is no need to draw the eye to that target. The net effect is that we have uncluttered the right-hand side of the header and in the process, made the store locator more visible. I’d also lean towards an evergreen placement of the shipping information, given its high value proposition to entice customers to try things out for no cost, and only swap it out for promotions during major seasonal sales.

I’ve also taken the liberty here to change the font to more closely match the rest of the fonts in the header and normalize around sans-serif, but I’d leave it to a fontographer/designer to make the final call on font faces and sizes here.

Step 2 header revision.

By moving the shipping promo into the header bar, we also de-duplicated the points promotion that appeared in two places and removed two questions for customers, “Which link should I click?” and, “Are the links different?”

Another change is replacing the “See details” link in the triple points promotion with, “Only four days left!” Where there used to be three underlined links in the header with the same text that took you to two different destinations, now we have two clickable regions with clear destinations. My rationale for removing the third promotion spot is that with the shift of the search box, more people will see the promotion overall, so the need for two areas to promote it are minimized.

The net result? We’ve pared down to six links with an equal amount of destinations and unweighted the header from a visual standpoint so it competes less with the sales content below.

The existing and proposed headers together for comparison.

The final step would be to A/B test everything to discover if the changes we made drove better click-through or changed customer feedback around finding stores and store hours.

[1] This particular scenario may be an edge case for Nordstrom, but I constantly hear people complain about discovering store hours and locations for various merchants.

[2] I was also leaning towards removing the “Get E-mail Updates” and “Wish List” links, but without knowing the data behind how much this drives their overall digital engagement strategy, I left them alone. “Wish List” also takes you to a sign in page, so that would be a low-hanging fruit link to remove in the anonymous state to free up more space and reduce links.

[3] Nordstrom’s core days are Mon-Sat and in the United States, where most people generally expect reduced Sunday hours, so only displaying Mon-Sat core hours is a relatively safe move.

Two Pieces of Good News

It’s such a shame that we have to travel half way around the world for two pieces of good news.

I didn’t see either of these stories in the Western press, but that’s not surprising given their bias.

(By the way, everything you read on the Internet is true.)

Social Media

Like. Share. Tweet. Pin. Rate. Check in. Plus one.

It seems like whatever you’re doing or wherever you go online, you’re being prodded to do something. The main impetus of course is about getting you to add some metadata to a database so the owners of the database can make some money off the data set, usually by selling targeted advertising, goods, or services to you and others.

This quid pro quo of doing something for someone else’s financial benefit tends to be tacit, generally because most people don’t quite understand the value of their online actions to other people and they’re doing what humans do naturally – act socially. Most people willingly make this tradeoff because the social and internal reward is much higher than any feeling of being taken advantage of.

My biggest beef with many of these services is that I’m the product (my information) being bought and sold and that the creeping bias of these systems is towards isolated pools of data tucked away behind a myriad number of logins. A decade ago, I think I had about three online logins: Amazon, Cisco support, and Sun support. Now, I’m sure I have 20 or more across all the sites and services, plus at least a couple dozen one-off’s for sites that I’ll never go back to.

It’s freaking work to juggle all these, not to mention keeping the passwords straight. (Future rant – sites that still can’t handle extended characters like * | $ % and so on in passwords. The worst one I have today is a financial site that only allows letters and numbers; really!)

I’m finding that I’m pretty burned out on most of it.

I’ve never been a big fan of Facebook’s walled garden model. Every walled garden in the past has fallen, leaving behind sad remnant communities. Facebook is a ways from that still, but it feels to me like they’re approaching the top of their parabolic arc.

Twitter I like, (way too much according to my wife,) but it also feels like it’s in a bit of a rut. Their spam problem seems to be growing, and I’ve found that I’m more conservative in following people now due to the burden of having to do some due diligence to discern if a given account is a spam front or authentic.

Pinterest is very visually interesting, but the interaction model still feels like work to me. Plus, I’m obviously not roaming around sites that have great graphics often enough to add to the boards I’ve set up. It just feels like another space to keep up.

Google+ was way too much work to get set up, so I gave up.

I’ve done a few product reviews here and there, but really, logging back into a site after I’ve completed a transaction is about the last thing I want to do.

Foursquare and Facebook check-in? Noise to me, and the modern equivalent of collecting refrigerator magnets from places you’ve visited. The first few are fun reminders, a dozen or so are fun for the kids to play with, but the whole collection is just more junk to go into the dumpster when your estate is liquidated.

I used Tumblr for a bit to try and aggregate everything, but it was finicky, and kept falling over, and stuff wouldn’t update, so I gave up.

One of these days, this’ll all get sorted out. There will be various paid or free cloud services to chose from and you’ll have granular privacy settings on everything you share into and out of it at the time of publication, and you’ll be able to easily shift from one service to another, unlike the painful extrication that’s required today.

Or not. The ultimate irony.